Once lost, could it be reclaimed?
Looking at the betting markets, there are clearly plenty of punters who think the Conservatives are almost certain to see Chloe Smith elected on the 23rd July. With the hulabaloo of the national media, by-elections are crucial shapers of the political narrative, but I wonder if their usefulness outlasts the by-election itself.
Labour seem doomed to lose the seat that was vacated by ‘Dr Ian Gibson’ after the party foolishly prohibited him from standing again. Within hours of the Labour Leader of the Council announcing he would not run, Dr Gibson told the media that he was stepping down as an MP with immediate effect. I have wondered long and hard about the succession-planning in the Labour Party, and was surprised that Victoria McDonald (the local party secretary) or one of the other candidates wasn’t chosen.
On paper, I thought Chris Ostrowski looked weaker than the other candidates – one had been a PPC before and works in evironmental affairs, one is on the Labour Party National Policy Forum and vice-chair of the Regional (East of England) Board, and one is the local party secretary. The constituency vice-chair only withdrew because he believed it to be an All-Women Shortlist that would choose Gibson’s successor. He has been accused of damning his party’s candidate with the faintest of praise in describing him as not local enough and not female.
And so I wonder what Labour’s game is. The time that a by-election has as big an impact on the national political narrative as when it is run, is if the by-election result is reversed at the next General Election. Imagine that the Tories do as expected and win Norwich North, will they put the effort into holding a seat as winning new target seats held by Labour and the Lib Dems? A combination of pragmatism and complacency could, under some circumstances, cause Norwich North to switch back to Labour at a GE.
If this happened, it would be a claim that the British people are not sold on electing Cameron as Prime Minister, or that the Conservatives enter government with doubts hanging over them. Winning back a seat lost at a by-election would also be the justification for any major change of direction before the election (such as changing leader). In short, winning back Norwich North would be a PR coup for the Labour Party.
So is this plausible, and how might you act to engineer it? I think it is possible, simply because the boundary changes that are due to take place. Using the notional versus actual 2005 GE results on the ever-excellent UK Polling Report, and the impact appears to be approximately a 2.5% swing against the Conservatives when the new boundaries come into force at the GE. The actual majority that was held by Dr Gibson in his final term was 5,459 but the notional 2005 result indicates a projected majority of 6,696. If Chloe Smith wins, but only just overturning the 5,500 majority of the old boundaries, she might struggle witht the boundary changes costing her a slim majority. She needs to be comfortably exceeding the notional majority to display strength.
If I were Labour, eager to unseat the new Conservative MP at the General Election, I would want to keep my first choice candidate out of this by-election, which I think was always unwinnable for Labour because of the projection of national politics. Without that, a stronger candidate untarnished by defeat in a by-election might stand a better chance if the national polls swing back a little towards Labour. The lack of subtlety in the remarks of the Vice-Chair of the local party, the presence of some strong candidates in the pool if/when Chris Ostrowski loses, and some boundary change benefits – altogether, I wonder if they are adopting a sensible strategy for a local (but also the national) party: allow the Tory victory that is inevitable, but then reverse it within the year.
The lesson for the Conservatives will be that, not only is winning not enough, but that the majority needs to triumph over the notional feedbacks. They will need to keep working in a seat that is/was target 163, and must be careful not to give Labour the PR coup of reversing a by-election victory on General Election night.
The Norwich North by-election is going to be very interesting, but it is what happens in this constituency at the GE next year that could have as big an effect. Watch on…